I never intended for my blog to be solely about writing. As such, I’ve tried to make sure each post has a universal message so that writers and non-writers alike can glean something from it. But as I began this post, I knew it was for writers only … until today. I added a few notes at the end that made me realize this post has something of import to non-writers too, specifically to those who are fed-up with the media. Maybe the notes will help you understand why there is a decline in the quantity of quality journalism. And, maybe there’s another little message that will be of benefit too.
I’m not a big fan of those “10 Tips to …” pieces. To me, they’re simplistic articles that someone tosses out in a half hour in order to make $7 from a website that places no value on writing while desperately needing writers.* Such sites equate word count with substance.
On second thought, I think that may be exactly why I don’t like such articles — the so-called publishers are destroying the profession of writing. When Helen Gurley Brown published a 10 tips to satisfying your man article in Cosmopolitan magazine, well, it may have been written by someone whose credentials we didn’t know, but we knew Ms. Brown was editing those pieces and she had credentials. She wrote the groundbreaking book Sex and the Single Girl, based on her life as a sexually active single woman in the 1950s and ’60s and at the encouragement of her apparently sexually satisfied husband, the late David Brown. And, Ms. Brown was paying her writers a decent wage for those ten tips.
Now days publishers say give me 750 (or 1000) words on such and such topic and I want 10 of those pieces in one day and I’ll pay you $7 a piece.** Certainly that encourages the employment of writers with questionable credentials and expertise in the topic and practically forces them to make up all the information, rather than actually research, report, and verify the information. It devalues the profession of writing, and it devalues writers, making it nearly impossible to be a full-time, professional writer. Worse, it makes doubtful the validity of the information one reads.
All of that is a round about way for me to (1) rant about the state of publishing, journalism, and copywriting and (2) to say that I’m only writing this particular blog piece at the semi-request of one of my clients. She’s the one I mentioned in Struggling. Since she was struggling with her writing, I asked her if she wanted me to provide her with some tips to working through the struggle. Hence, my use of semi-request — I offered, she said yes.
But as I started typing this and writing the part about writers just making up their tips and not doing their research, I had a brainstorm — why don’t I do some research on this topic. I contacted four friends, all of whom have successful novels on the bookstore shelves right now. I asked them to provide me with one to three tips on how they work through the writing struggle. Four said they would. Two actually came through. (Interestingly, it was the men who came through for me, not the women.)
So let me introduce you to the gracious Joe O’Connell. Joe is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, teacher, husband and father. I say that to point out that not just beginning writers have to multi-task and be pro time managers. Joe wrote Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, which is about a struggling screenwriter who volunteers at a hospice – not out of the goodness of his heart, but to find a great plot for his next screenplay. Evacuation Plan was named a finalist in the Violet Crown Awards and won the North Texas Book Award.
This spring, Joe is teaching a novella-in-a-semester class at St. Edward’s University. It’s based on the NaNo writing concept — whipping out a novel in a month, while not worrying about editing and rewriting. That way one silences the self-editing demon that can hamper productivity and creativity. In fact, Joe’s writing with his class.
1. “One thing we are doing may sound a bit goofy,” Joe emailed me, “but I have them construct a vision board — photos that remind them of characters, places, etc. We get out the Mod Podge and act like 13-year-old girls in creating something. The idea is to get the daydreams flowing. This is very useful at the start of a project and is also something to meditate on while writing.”
I’m going to interrupt here and interject that this works equally well in nonfiction. For my true crime books, I paste on a poster board photographs of the “characters” from the book, pictures from their childhoods, their homes, their families, and their friends. I also paste on photographs of the crime scenes and evidence. I’ll stare at these poster boards for hours, noticing the tiniest details and looking into my characters eyes, begging them to tell me something, and usually they do.
2. “If (and when) I get caught in the middle,” Joe says, “I try to spend some time plotting out the rest of the book. I write a 4- to 8-page loose synopsis of the story. I usually don’t write this until I get stuck, but this semester I’m having students do it early so they can speed through that sloppy first draft.”
Of course, Suzy’s got to throw in her two-cents too. Since we’re in the midst of contest season — in fact, the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest deadline is February 24, 2010 — and often a one-page synopsis is required with a contest entry, I suggest to my clients that they graph five major plot points in their book and then write the synopsis based on those points.
By plot points, I mean the inciting incident that kicks off the book, i.e. the event that throws the lead character’s life into chaos; at least two other events that spin the character’s life out of control, again, just when he/she thinks life is about to get on track; and the resolution, which will show how the problem created in the beginning of the book (or subsequent problems) is solved and how the character has changed over the course of the book. Plop those incidents down on a graph, write a few sentences describing each, as well as giving a bit of character description, and you’ve got yourself a rockin’ one-page synopsis.
3. For Joe’s last tip, he says, “Artificial deadlines work. That’s why I’m writing along with my class! That’s also the ‘gift’ of the course for them.”
I partially agree with Joe. For me, that artificial deadline has to be outside myself. If I tell myself I have to write five pages a day, I won’t do that unless I know my book deadline is three months away and the only way I’m going to meet that deadline is if I write five pages a day.
Knowing I’m that way, I knew I never would finish a book on my own. And that’s exactly why I got my Master in Professional Writing degree. To graduate, I had to complete a book. So, in reality (and that’s an intended oxymoron to artificial), I completely agree with Joe’s tip that artificial deadlines work because my MPW forced me to finish a novel, just like his class is forcing Joe and his students to finish a novella.
Similarly, my client has her “artificial deadline” of the Writers’ League contest. And I’ve got to tell you, she’s making that deadline. After reading Struggling, she sent me a bare-your-soul piece of writing that got her past the struggle and a few days later she sent me some new pages. Those pages are filled with passion and they rock! I’ve also got to tell you that she had to go through a time-consuming, gut-wrenching process in order to write such passionate, quality words. What I’m back to saying is that you’re not going to get great writing at 50, 400-word articles written in one day.
That almost sounds like I’m contradicting Joe and his novella-in-a-semester. No, I’m not. Absolutely not … because you have to get something on the page to begin the writing process. The difference between publishers that pay $7 an article and Joe and my client is those publishers will publish anything – whether it’s factual or not, whether it’s good or not – and Joe and my client will go through a long, slow, tedious process of rewrite and more rewrite and often painful soul-searching until they know that their truth is written in their words and those words are crafted and polished as beautifully as possible.
And maybe that’s the universal message in this post – beauty comes in slow, tedious process and often, painful soul-searching.
My next blog post will offer three tips on coping with the struggle from award-winning novelist John Pipkin.
* In 2007, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times stating that the publisher of Pasadena Now, a Pasadena, California publication, was outsourcing reportage of the Pasadena City Council meetings to writers in India. Yes, that’s India that’s on the continent of Asia, not India, Texas.
These writers in India watched a video feed of the Pasadena, California, meetings and wrote their news stories based on the video feed. They missed any and all important happenings that took place off-camera and any opportunity to ask follow-up questions or questions of clarification. Admittedly, they made mistakes in their reporting but dismissed such concerns because, also admittedly, they are not journalists. The pay for their work was $7.50 for each 1000-word piece … or, as the publisher said to Maureen Dowd for the New York Times, “I pay per piece, just the way it is in the garment business.”
** I just read a CraigsList writing gig ad seeking someone to write 50 articles, at a minimum of 400 words per article, for a total pay of $100. That’s $2 per article or .005-cents per word. In 1966, the year after Helen Gurley Brown became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, she paid freelance writers a minimum of 60-cents a word. Cosmo articles generally run from 1000 to 1800 words. So let’s look at this again – 2010, .005-cents a word v. 1966, 60-cents a word. 2010, $2/article v. 1966 $600/article. Is there any doubt why the quality of journalism has declined?